Congress passed legislation reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling on Wednesday, but the bill also contained several provisions that set money aside for special projects.
Chief among them is language that authorizes about $2.9 billion in funding for a floundering dam project that is partly in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell helped broker the budget deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
The bill also provides cash infusions to help military veterans speed up their claims for health benefits, in addition to flood relief, firefighting efforts and a payment to a late senator’s widow.
These kinds of payments are usually worked out during formal budget negotiations, but, as Reuters noted, “Such stop-gap funding measures often include so-called ‘anomalies’ to address special needs.”
The Kentucky dam project, in particular, has come under scrutiny by conservative groups and even some senators, who see it as a ploy to use a federal emergency as a way to fund special projects at taxpayers’ expense. The original project was approved decades ago for $775 million, but has since suffered setbacks and gone significantly over budget.
“In exchange for funding Obamacare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion earmark,” the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that may back McConnell’s primary opponent, wrote in a blog post. “This is an insult to all the Kentucky families who don’t want to pay for Obamacare and don’t want to shoulder any more debt.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also criticized the appropriation as “ridiculous.”
"These people are like alcoholics. They can't resist taking a drink. It's ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous," McCain said to the Daily Beast. "It shows that there are people in this body who are willing to use any occasion to get an outrageous pork-barrel project done at the cost of millions and millions of dollars. It's disgusting."
Despite the location of the project, McConnell’s office was quick to note that the minority leader didn’t actually push for the provision himself. The language, supported by the White House, was suggested and authored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who said that it will ultimately save taxpayers money.
“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Alexander told BuzzFeed. “Sen. [Diane] Feinstein and I, as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, requested this provision. It has already been approved this year by the House and Senate.”
Aside from the dam project, Congress approved $450 million in flood relief to help Colorado rebuild areas that were damaged earlier this year. More than $600 million was set aside for fighting wildfires in California and other western states, and, according to CNN, a watchdog group that fights for Americans’ privacy rights in the face of government espionage will find a check for $3.1 million.
Meanwhile, the Veterans Administration will receive about $2.4 billion to help a backlog of veterans finally collect health insurance and other benefits. Some soldiers have been stuck waiting for years.
Congress also authorized a payment of $174,000 to Bonnie Lautenberg, the widow of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who passed away earlier this year. Lautenberg was worth nearly $60 million, but Senate tradition typically involves providing families the equivalent of a senator’s annual salary.